‘For they that sleep with dogs, shall rise with fleas’, (Webster, 1612).
Lying down with dogs and getting up with fleas is a concept we’re familiar with – it’s basically a warning that we are likely to adopt the behaviours of those we spend time with. The more time we spend with someone, the more likely we are to adopt their behaviours. Those of us raised by narcissists worry a lot about becoming narcissists ourselves.
Some people believe that if you ask yourself ‘Am I a narcissist?’ that’s proof positive that you’re not. I don’t agree. I think a narcissist might well ask ‘Am I a narcissist?’ if it is suggested that they might be, and then completely dismiss the notion.
‘Of course I’m not a narcissist – I just have good self-esteem / know what my strengths are / disagree with X / Y is just jealous’, they might respond.
For some of us, we recognise (often with shock) that we are displaying behaviours our narcissistic abusers did, too. We worry then that we are also narcissists. I’m here to tell you that just because you behave in certain instances the way your narcissistic parent did – or in a way that they trained you to – you’re not necessarily one of them.
As an example; right up until I was an adult and cut contact with my narcissistic, abusive mother, she demanded I give up every scrap of information about myself. It’s a difficult one to explain to people who haven’t been through it, but – like most narcissistic mothers of daughters – she saw me as nothing more than an extension of herself. I wasn’t, therefore, ‘allowed’ to have any sort of privacy. (Mind you, growing up, I was sexually abused and raped by my father and brothers, so the notion of ‘privacy’ wasn’t one I was familiar with!) My worth was bound up with my complete exposition of myself to this woman. I was admonished, castigated, and threatened if I didn’t tell her everything she wanted to know as soon as she wanted to know it. She frequently rifled through my belongings, actively sought out anything I might be trying to keep private for myself (belongings, diaries, etc.), and berated me if I tried to keep anything of myself, to myself. This behaviour was reserved for me only – my brothers deserved basic respect, autonomy, and privacy. I didn’t. At the same time, my mother was very secretive, very slow to share anything that remotely approached a piece of personal information. In her economy, personal information was currency: She felt the need to accrue, and hoard it by any means possible, and the only way I could ‘buy’ her affection was to surrender all I had.
Being taught that I could only earn worthiness by disclosing more than I wanted to, more than I was comfortable doing, and more than was expected of others, I learnt to offer up every morsel of myself to others whose love and approval I wanted. This appeared, I must admit, like narcissism. I would talk about myself, and not enquire about my companion because I understood that I had no right to ask. I had been taught that, in order to be tolerated, I needed to surrender all of myself, and require nothing in return.
It’s not that I had no interest in the person to whom I was speaking, but I didn’t have the awareness that I was allowed to ask questions, too. It never occurred to me that I was not just allowed, but expected, to ask questions of the person I was with – that it wasn’t being ‘nosey’ it was being ‘interested’. The nuance was not one I was aware of until a number of years ago. This exchange was a social reciprocity that I had never learnt.
Awareness was the first step in unlearning this behaviour. I consciously asked questions as well as answering them. I took notice of how other people interacted around me, and I emulated those interactions. I didn’t become more interested in other people and their experiences, I became better at expressing that interest. I’m ashamed when I think of how insufferable I must have come across – talking only about myself as I really were the more interesting person in the conversation. I try to forgive myself by gently reminding myself that I was taught that this complete exposition of myself was the only way I could render myself acceptable, or anything approaching ‘loveable’. And I’m human – I want to be accepted. I want to be loved.
What about you? What fleas have you picked up? How might you rid yourself of them?